ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Last Man" by R. L. Swihart, and "The New Arcana" by John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris, reviewed by Ricardo Nirenberg.

The Last Man, by R. L. Swihart, Kanev Books, 2012
The New Arcana, by John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris, NYQ Books, 2012


The three authors have contributed to Of(f)course in the past: these two books, though, have more than this far-from-negligible fact in common.  An enormous space of reference and allusion, to start with, and then, the constant use of dialogue between dramatic personae, in the tradition, one is tempted to say, of Robert Browning and Robert Frost.  Let us begin with The Last Man, Swihart’s first book of poems.

Swihart’s lyric vein, at once playful and philosophical, always light-touch, is revealed early in this splendid line:

“A card laid is a card played.  Simon says.  And wind deals the cards.”

A little further, the following defiant individualism, exploded by the pun at the end:

“I  know  what  you’re  thinking.  You’re  wrong.  
I can sleep standing.  I’ve  warmth  enough for two.  We’ve got the stars and the cars and Venus between us.  Weave got ewe.”

It is hard or impossible to decide, yet—for sentimental reasons, as the song goes—I think one of my favorite pieces in this book is titled ALGORITHM.  Here it is:

“Take any segment and drop out the middle third. Take the remaining thirds and repeat the process, i.e. take each of the two segments and drop out the middle third. A million iterations should be sufficient.
Sometimes I find it helps. I applied the algorithm to last April and got impossible results. I placed all the pieces in two Ziploc bags and labeled them accordingly: Gaps and Dust.
Ignoring the gaps, I was able to save a young girl, who’s still learning perspective, a few sleepless nights.
Working with the dust, I created a beautiful mosaic. A sleeping seed is juxtaposed against a small white arm flexing up through black in a plastic cup. A certain kiss, though stuttering, takes on a life of its own. Though borrowed, the arrow Borges launched is still resting on the page.”

Perhaps here a few glosses are called for.  The “Algorithm” piece refers to the Cantor set, which can be described as the set of real numbers between 0 and 1 whose ternary expansion (i.e. their expression as a sequence of the digits 0, 1 and 2) does not contain the digit 1.  The set is famous because it can be put into one-to-one correspondence with the whole set of real numbers, yet its measure is zero, as Georg Cantor showed.  Any math major would (or should) know that, and know how to prove it; but I had never before seen it applied to last April, to the continuum formed by each and every one of the time instants of the cruelest month.  Impossible results, as Swihart says.  The intervals removed are the Gaps; what remains in the Cantor set is the Dust.  And Gaps and Dust, two fraught words, are the twin principles of life, or, if you wish, what remains of it after it’s done.  You may weave the rest ad libitum in your imagination, but I would like to add that Borges’ borrowed arrow was borrowed from Zeno the Eleatic, and the fact that it is still resting on the page has a lot to do with the old paradoxes and the new conundrums of the continuum, one of which is the Cantor set.  So “Algorithm” is a good place to start taking a measure of the breadth and depth of Swihart’s poetic universe.
Add to those depths the geographic and linguistic extension, for example here in  GRÜß GOTT (the salutation you often hear in Bavaria instead of “guten Morgen”):

“I moved for her, I keep moving for her
Her smile sells the baubles and I tag along
This dog only paddles and I don’t do Schwäbisch
I suppose I have the wherewithal to cope
Whether it’s Goethe or not I keep quoting him:
Communication is an aberration
Rain or shine I carry my chalk and slate
My favorite post is 2 + 2 ≠ 4
Even if I’m just an echo I won’t pass in silence
Truth, who knows—justification, yes
In her I’ve heard the music of the spheres”

And the witty, knowing wink to the cosmopolite who remembers Magritte’s pipe:

“The drumming rain sings Ceci n’est pas une gouttière

Swihart knows how to twist the usual mythological subjects into new and enigmatic shapes.  Two examples:

“Though Z. wishes the pretty pony no harm, he saws off the golden
horn, grinds it to powder, mixes it with Gatorade and ice.
Thinking Moses-in-the-desert, thinking Asklepios, he sets up on 4th
and Park, raising high his cardboard sign: ICECOLD DRINKS, GRATIS”

Down row after row of hedges
I chase her without
a breath
The little tease steals naked
onto an empty

Seldom a first book of poems shows such evidence of skill.


The New Arcana, by John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris is a comico-philosophical jeu d’esprit; like Samuel Beckett’s early poem “Whoroscope,” it seems sometimes to have as chief butt the 17th century philosopher René Descartes and his numberless descendants.  For soon after the beginning of the book we find the expostulation:

“Flame, clangor, holy superstition of cause and effect.
La religion de séquentialité!

And indeed for Descartes and the Cartesian religion, to be alive, awake and sane meant avoir de la suite dans les idées – to entertain only appropriate & approved sequences of mental events – and this is precisely what Amen and Harris refuse to do.  As part of their strategy, their characters tend to conjoin math and theology, much like Descartes, but in a different spirit:

“I’m at my best when I think of myself mathematically.” (Jughead)
“I’m at my worst when I think of myself theologically.” (Sadie)

Jughead Jones and Sadie Shorthand, we should inform the reader, were two very precocious philosophers, the latter one wearing at present a g-string and four-inch heels – perhaps she does burlesque?  When he was ten, JJ said to his father: “Dad, what you call your life is just an epistemological construct.”  And SS quoted the following on her senior yearbook: “To be God—now that’s a strange karma.”  Who could gainsay either one? 
Don’t expect any monkey business or openly titillating shenanigans between those two, though: that sort of thing is the main locus of sequential, even obsessively sequential, thought, and as such it is not welcome here.  Anyhow, unless you’re unremittingly into sex, all these characters will hold your interest and often make you laugh.

After JJ and SS, we meet CC: “Cult prodigy, mystic and healer” Constance Carbuncle has mental issues – “a potent Kali complex,” among others.  We also meet Don the Commuter, a character who ends up being killed by a drunken driver while eating a pork taco on his lunch break, on November 1st 2002, quite appropriately on the Día de los muertos.

“‘Well, she was standing there lecturing a pigeon, for God’s sake,’ said Don the Commuter, testifying at Constance Carbuncle’s competency hearing.  ‘I could tell right away that she was probably a bad driver.  She said something about field meters, and the pigeon squawked, and then she pulled out the knife.  It looked like a steak knife.  A pretty good knife.  One I’d like to keep in my car.  By the way,’ Don added, ‘I’d like it included in the record that I’ve shaved twice a day without fail since the age of fifteen, often while driving to and/or from work.’”

I cannot describe here the tenth of the crazy Olympus Amen and Harris have erected, but I cannot let the Parisian professors go unmentioned.  The Sorbonnagre Jean-Pierre Mouyabaise, whose dates are given as 1923-2007, and whose family name seems a combination of mayonnaise and bouillabaisse, is what our English departments call a “theoretician.”  If The New Arcana has the diffusion and the success it deserves, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some new doctoral dissertations connecting Mouyabaise with Paul de Man and Bakhtin.  And then there is the female counterpart, Professor Claudia Binot-Glas, whose “seminal work” is titled “The Speculum of Panatomism.”

For the sake of balance and of equal time I should mention, finally, JD, a male character known only by his initials, and by the fact that all that is written about him (though not what he says) must contain verbs only in the infinitive.  He is definitely against theorizing:

“‘The theoretical,’ JD says, ‘is for the caged and collared lapdog’.”

The New Arcana is the poetic jeu of two very fine esprits.


Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse.

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